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Tianyu Arts & Culture

A Conversation with Traditional Chinese Lantern Artisans

Tianyu Arts & Culture, Inc. is the largest Chinese lantern festival producer in North America. More than 4.5 million visitors have experienced Tianyu light festivals at zoos, parks, and other outdoor venues in more than 30 U.S. cities. They employ traditional Chinese lantern makers to produce the impressive pieces included in their light shows. The Garden recently interviewed various members of the Tianyu team to better understand the artisanal process and cultural significance of Chinese lanterns. 

How much time does it take to make one of the large-scale lanterns displayed in Radiant Nature? 

We have numerous large-scale lantern displays in Radiant Nature, featuring cherry blossom trees, a Chinese dragon, a pagoda, and more. For example, crafting the cherry blossom trees required the collaborative effort of approximately 30 individuals over the course of 30 days. The pagoda was completed by a team of around 10 people in 20 days. The Chinese dragon involved a similar number of individuals and time as the pagoda. However, it’s important to note that the creation of these lanterns was just the initial phase—additional time was dedicated to installing and refining them before they were ready for the show.

How many artisans have worked on the pieces in Radiant Nature?

Several months prior to our arrival in the U.S., approximately 100 artisans labored in our studios in China to produce the majority of the lanterns currently on display in Radiant Nature. Subsequently, 25 artisans traveled to the U.S. to complete the work and installed all the lantern groups in the Garden within the span of one month.

What aspects of Chinese culture and traditions will people see in this lantern show?

In Chinese mythology, during springtime around the Chinese New Year, a monster known as “Nian” would emerge to attack livestock and people. However, Nian was sensitive to loud noises and afraid of bright colors and strong light. It is said that the tradition of the Chinese Lantern Festival originated when people began using colorful lanterns to scare off the monster and adorn the city.

The Lantern Festival has since become a tradition around the Chinese New Year, typically celebrated in the first month of the new year, lasting for 15 days. Bright lights are believed to bring good luck and ward off misfortunate. It is also a time for families to gather, spend time together, and celebrate the New Year and their achievements.

Where in China is the team of artisans from?

All the artisans are from the city of Zigong, which is situated in Sichuan Province in southwest China. Currently, more than 2,000 lantern artisans reside in this city, where lantern-making techniques have been meticulously preserved for generations. Regarded as the premier lantern-making city globally, Zigong has earned a stellar reputation that resonates throughout China and across the globe, gaining widespread popularity.

What is your favorite part of the process of building a Chinese lantern?

  • Colored lanterns represent the traditional culture of Zigong. My favorite aspect is the integration of modern technologies with the traditional skills handed down from the older generation, which has elevated the craftsmanship of lantern making to its pinnacle.
  • Zigong lanterns hold the status of being one of China’s intangible cultural heritages. They possess the capability to present renowned scenic spots and historical sites from various regions to visitors through the medium of colored lanterns.

 

How/why did you choose to build lanterns professionally?

  • I want to become an inheritor of Chinese lantern culture. I am fortunate to be engaged in this profession, promoting our culture to the world through colorful lanterns, allowing more people to understand ancient China and its rich cultural heritage.
  • Lantern making has been a family tradition; both my father and grandfather are lantern artisans. In my role within the lantern industry, I am privileged to inherit intangible cultural heritage and contribute to the promotion of lantern culture.

 

What do you want people to know about artisanal crafts and handmade art?

  • The production of lanterns in China boasts a history of more than 1,500 years. The act of appreciating and viewing lanterns has evolved into an indispensable part of social activities for the Chinese people, especially during major festivals.
  • Our aim is to share the richness of Chinese culture and art with people. Lantern Festivals are a cherished tradition in China, providing an opportunity for people to come together, enjoy their time, and marvel at the beautiful lights. The custom of lantern show originated in the Tang dynasty (618–907) and has a long history. We take immense pride in upholding such a longstanding tradition and in creating delicate and exquisite artworks for people all around the world to appreciate.
  • I’m not sure if people here are familiar with the tradition of “guessing lantern riddles,” which is a popular game during Chinese Lantern Festivals. In this game, players are tasked with solving riddles presented in sentences, phrases, or puzzles, usually attached to the lanterns. Winners of the game are rewarded with a prize. It demands a combination of knowledge, wisdom, and wit to provide the correct answers.

 

What are you most proud of when you reflect on your work?

  • In 2013, I created a massive lantern installation that was 30 meters (about 100 feet) high. It received recognition from both the client and the boss, so I have been determined to excel in this industry and become a cultural inheritor of Zigong lanterns. 
  • Through this Lantern Festival in Houston, I feel very fortunate and proud to have the opportunity to bring lanterns that embody Chinese elements to the local people, offering them a visual feast.
  • During the production and installation process, we encounter various challenges and difficulties. However, with the collective efforts of the team, we are able to complete the projects on time and with high quality. I take pride in promoting Chinese culture worldwide in the form of lanterns.
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